Argument

Journalism Has a Class Problem, Too

The increasingly narrow backgrounds of reporters distort coverage at home and abroad.

A French journalist takes a nap circa 1860
A French journalist takes a nap circa 1860. adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

There’s a certain class—and “class” is very much the operative word—of people in Britain who are almost untouchable. It’s a class defined by the private schools they went to, the parties they’re invited too, and the second houses in the countryside. And it’s a group that is too often in charge of the country, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson having attended the elite Eton College, former Prime Minister David Cameron being another Eton graduate, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak having attended the similarly exclusive Winchester College. Unfortunately, this class is also in charge of the media. In Britain, as in the United States, journalism is increasingly dominated by the upper classes.

A recent bit of British silliness typified this—one that’s still making headlines even in the middle of the coronavirus. On June 12, Flora Gill, the daughter of the Conservative Party politician and former home secretary Amber Rudd, tweeted that she was riding her boyfriend “cowgirl style” when the song “Old Town Road” came on, making her feel like she was in a “porno musical.”

There’s nothing wrong with the fact that Gill was having sex, or her preferred position, or the choice of music (“Old Town Road” is a legit banger), or even the way she and Rudd played the subsequent exchange as a quirky little PR stunt, perhaps for their new mother-and-daughter slot with Times Radio. But there was a lot of privilege packed into those words.

Gill is a journalist, with bylines in GQ, the Sunday Times Style magazine, the Spectator, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times Magazine, the Radio Times, and Tatler. She seems to be a perfectly nice person. But for journalists without her level of connections, a viral sex tweet would be an embarrassment that might cost them commissions or even jobs. It’s the kind of things that BIPOC reporters, and working-class ones, warn each other against, conscious of how contingent and fragile their positions are.

Gill’s tweet exemplifies the idea that class gives you a fallback option. It gives you the ability to be embarrassing and fail and undergo personal crises, and then return to your profession in the public eye. Gill can take risks where working-class journalists and journalists of color cannot. It’s no coincidence that of her fellow panelists on Times Radio, the vast bulk are privately educated and from confidently rich families.

During my time in newsrooms, I’ve been staggered by the number of people working there who have parents in the industry, or who have been recommended or handed a way in by connections built by their parents. It was difficult to watch other people my age land jobs because they’d been able to live in London, in accommodation paid for by their wealthy parents, while they worked for free. In the United States, the same goes for the New York media internship.

Without that kind of parental support, unpaid internships are often off-limits, and for many people they are the only way into a diminished industry. Local newspapers used to offer a way up for working-class people; start—sometimes as young as 16, without a university education—at your town paper and work your way up. With their decline, it is mostly the center, dominated by the elite, that remains.

British journalism now centers almost exclusively around London and elite media outlets that employ people through a mixture of nepotism, personal connections, and the expectation of completing months and months of unpaid work. Yes, open programs to recruit recent graduates exist, but competition is fierce, and the route of starting at local papers and working one’s way up to national ones is just an outdated dream in many areas that have seen newspapers close down or offices move to the capital.

The lack of class diversity in journalism harms the industry. It’s obvious in the way that stories  focus on Oxford and Cambridge universities (and in the United States, Harvard and Yale), to the exclusion of all other schools. Journalists have so often attended these elite institutions that they already have a leg up when it comes to contacts, and they endlessly obsess with writing about them.

It was apparent this week, with the reopening on nonessential shops in England, when the journalist side of Twitter was awash with middle-class writers mocking and condemning those lining up to shop at Primark, a low-cost clothing chain. It’s apparent even in foreign coverage, where the financial security necessary to maintain the low-paid, insecure world of freelancing abroad as a young journalist usually comes from family at home. That produces a class of foreign correspondents even more drawn from the wealthy and privileged than their domestic counterparts, and with it a blindness to issues that working-class journalists may perceive more sharply.

At home or abroad, being a working-class journalist is to be disadvantaged and often overlooked. It means calculating how many people’s floors you can sleep on while completing unpaid work (if you’re lucky enough to get that in the first place), while more privileged peers sleepwalk into staff jobs, and then later stumble across columns and book deals. It’s a tenuous position, because for all your hard work, one wrong step can throw you back into obscurity and joblessness, simply because you don’t have the financial backup or connections to bounce into another position.

That’s not the case if you’re from the white upper class. Take Johnson, for example. The now-prime minister was fired from his job at the Times of London in 1988 for making up quotes but was then quickly hired by the Daily Telegraph, perhaps because he’d met the editor Max Hastings during his Oxford University Union presidency.

Privilege and connections always seem to win out. It’s unlikely that Times Radio will drop Flora Gill and Amber Rudd from its lineup after Gill’s ill-advised tweet. It certainly didn’t see anything amiss when the broadcaster announced Rudd’s appointment amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence after the death of George Floyd, despite Rudd’s involvement in and resignation over the Windrush scandal, in which hundreds of largely Black Britons who had immigrated from the Caribbean decades earlier were targeted for deportation.

It’s up to elite media outlets to tackle the crisis in diversity. They can begin to do so by refusing to automatically offer jobs and work experience placements to people simply because of who their parents are. Newspapers should actively recruit working-class journalists from outside of London—young people who are not part of the Oxbridge set or recipients of private education. Unpaid internships and lengthy periods of work experience must be done away with, as they exclude those without a pot of money financing their efforts. Talent and ideas should always take precedent over connections.

Without diversity, journalism is an echo chamber where the same stories, concepts, and viewpoints are repeated over and over again. Journalism will struggle to resonate or connect with people from different backgrounds as long as their voices are not represented in newsrooms. The profession itself will become stale, overstuffed with children of privilege, and unable to comprehend lived experience outside of the London media bubble.

For a healthy media—one of the hallmarks of a functioning democracy—to exist, we must fight for diversity at all costs.

Harriet Williamson is a journalist, mental health activist and artist. Twitter: @harriepw

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